According to NASA, there are approximately 100 million pieces of debris larger than a millimeter (about .04 inches) orbiting Earth, and about 23,000 of those pieces are larger than a softball.

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graphic of debris surrounding earth
Credit: NASA/Getty

Planet Earth's pollution problem is quite literally out of this world.

The growing amount of space junk orbiting Earth could eventually give the planet its own Saturn-like rings, according to Jake Abbott, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Utah, who is developing a solution with a team whose research was published last month in the science journal Nature.

"Earth is on course to have its own rings," Abbott told The Salt Lake Tribune this month. "They'll just be made of junk."

As of May, NASA reported that there are approximately 100 million pieces of debris larger than a millimeter (about .04 inches) orbiting the earth, and about 23,000 of those pieces are larger than a softball.

The Department of Defense's global Space Surveillance Network sensors track more than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, which have been known to pose significant problems for space crews and earthbound folk alike.

Since both spacecrafts and debris travel at extremely high speeds, an impact with even the smallest piece of debris could be catastrophic. And according to the National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, a total of between 200 and 400 pieces of orbital debris fall to Earth each year, but most of it burns up and disintegrates upon reentering the atmosphere.

Back in March, a five-foot piece of debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle survived re-entry and landed on a farm in Washington State. Fortunately, no one was harmed.

Abbott noted that cleaning up the space junk orbiting our planet isn't as easy as collecting it with a robotic arm, as most pieces of debris are spinning and would just break off the arm. Instead, he's proposed using magnets.

And although not all of the space junk is metal, he insists that magnets "will work," due to eddy currents. Since a spinning nonmagnetic object creates electricity, it can be used with spinning magnets to activate eddy currents, electrical currents shaped like whirlpools that create their own magnetic fields.

"We've basically created the world's first tractor beam," Abbott summarized to The Salt Lake Tribune. "It's just a question of engineering now. Building and launching it."

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